The 15% of the world population living in Africa, currently shoulder around 24% of the global disease burden, while only 1% of the world’s healthcare expenditure is made here. So indeed, “statistics can be depressing” as a delegate of the 5th stakeholder meeting of the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation (ANDI) rightly said when summarising the very first session of the conference, but more importantly, “opportunities are exciting“. Identifying these opportunities and discussing partnerships and financing for transformative, accessible and sustainable health solutions for the African continent was the joint endeavour of the different upstream and downstream actors, including policy makers and donors, who met from November 23rd – 25th in Nairobi at this high level networking event organised by ANDI.

“statistics can be depressing, but opportunities are exciting”

While at DSW Brussels, a big part of our work is to advocate for supporting R&D for poverty-related and neglected diseases (PRNDs) towards the EU institutions, in Africa, we are more known for our work on youth empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The director of UNFPA East and Southern Africa, who also attended the ANDI meeting, praised DSW for its report on Africa’s demographic dividend when we met during the coffee break. To ensure that Africa’s growingIMG_0551
young population can fulfil their full potential, lifting the burden of neglected tropical diseases (NDTs) – which cost economies billions of dollars every year and prevent millions of people in low and middle income countries (LMICs) around the world from living healthy and productive lives – will however be equally key to achieving this goal.

“There’s a very long road between basic discovery research and private sector implementation to bring innovation to the people”

The new and improved preventive, diagnostic, and treatment tools urgently needed to fight PRNDs, are, however, critically lacking. In his introduction to the stakeholder meeting, Dr. Solomon Nwaka, the Executive Director of ANDI cited the results of a new landscape analysis conducted by ANDI which shows that only 0.22% of patents are filled by African innovators, and from 7.5 billion articles produced from 2010 to today, only 0.4% include African authors. Dr Dermot Maher, the coordinator of research capacity strengthening for tropical diseases research at the WHO, explained this with the “very long road” between basic discovery research and private sector implementation to bring innovation to the people. And although the research pipeline is better stocked today as ever before, “90% of global health R&D spending is still made for only 10% of the disease burden – namely those mainly effecting richer countries in the world”. But how to overcome this global failure of R&D for health?

“How to overcome this global failure of R&D for health?”

20151123_141243If “pharmaceutical companies are not coming to Africa as a favour, but to be able to acquire the relevant data”, as said by one of the delegates, why is it then that investors are not scanning the African research landscape like the Nairobi falcons which were circling the conference participants during the conference lunc
h breaks? … I actually got my lunch stolen through a masterly nosedive manoeuvre by one of the birds. One explanation was given by Sanaa Botros, professor at the Theodor Bilharz Research institute (TBRI) in Egypt, when answering the question why she only presented successful cooperation with northern countries, like the FP7 project with the University of Amsterdam: despite having “great confidence” in African researchers it can be “really challenging to know what expertise can be found where”.

“It can be really challenging to know what expertise can be found where”

This is exactly where ANDI comes in: numerous contributions from panellists and during Q&IMG_0352_b_970pxA sessions emphasised the important role for ANDI in uncovering existing research capacity and creating awareness globally on opportunities for health innovation in Africa. A representative of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) in Nigeria gave the example of projects in which ANDI had already successfully helped in identifying partners. Dr Brett Premack, managing director at Theris Biosciences – and according to Ole Olesen from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), “the banker of health R&D” – sees “real value” in ANDI’s network and “deep reach into scientific knowledge” in Africa.

“Make health R&D fashionable”

Margaret Sigonda, pharmaceutical coordinator at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) technical body of the African Union, also encouraged ANDI to continue and enhance its advocacy efforts to ensure that African leaders meet the commitments made in the Abuja declaration (increase government funding for health to at least 15%), and in the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024, which encourages member states to allocate at least 1% of GDP to R&D. Many participants expressed their wish for the African Union to “grow some teeth” when it comes to defending these commitments. An alternative solution was raised by Hesbon Simba Onyancha from PATH Kenya, who is currently working to establish a health R&D advocacy coalition in IMG_0634_b_970pxKenya and East Africa: To make R&D, and in particular health R&D fashionable!

 

Achieving this will certainly take joining forces among African stakeholders and on a global level. ANDI’s new five year strategy to which participants of the stakeholder meeting were invited to input, will be a first important step towards this goal. And hopefully, countries like Kenya, which already invest 2% of national resources to R&D, can lead by example.